William Birkbeck arrived in Settle in the late 17th Century and established a family line of substance.

His grandsons John and William – together with John Alcock of Skipton, John Peart of Grassington and Joseph Smith and William Lawson of Giggleswick – founded the Craven Bank in 1791.

William junior’s son, George Birkbeck, went on to found the Mechanics Institute in London in 1800 and Birkbeck College, also in London, in 1823.

But it is another great grandson, Morris, who is the focus of this article.

A Quaker family, the Birkbecks’ desire to empower and create opportunities for all was apparent. Of course it is also true that through their skills and marriages they were wealthy but “had never abused or disgraced their riches by pride, extravagance, or want of charity”.

Morris was sent to a farm and learnt agronomy (the science and technology behind agriculture) and became a successful tenant farmer on an estate in Wanborough, Surrey. He was the first man in England to raise merino sheep.

He married Prudence Bush, who bore him seven children. However, she died in 1804 before any had reached 10 years of age.

Morris was facing the expiry of his lease and was angered that, because of his beliefs, he could not own land or vote but must pay tax. So he travelled to France with a friend, George Flower. They discussed emigrating to America and establishing a totally new English colony.

Morris proposed certain basic conditions with which Flower agreed. They decided “they would not establish a colony in slave territory … and would sell land only to families of hard-working English stock”.

They left for America in 1817 with five of Morris’s children. Birkbeck wrote that he hoped to create “a flourishing, public- spirited energetic community, where the insolence of wealth and the servility of pauperism are alike and unknown”.

The great adventure became known as the “Illinois English Prairie” and began with no specific idea of where to settle.

Travelling further and further west, the partners tested land prices and conditions in Ohio, Indiana and then Illinois. They chose sections of prairie land in Edwards County and in August 1818 named the township Wanborough.

The early settlers, originally from the forested regions of Europe, found the prairies rather frightening. They were not used to the hordes of biting insects, intense summer heat and high humidity, bleak, windy winters and periodic raging prairie fires.

Because no trees grew on the prairie, the settlers at first considered the land to be infertile. This, plus the need for firewood and construction timber, prompted them to build homes at the edges of the prairies and along rivers, where trees persisted.

It was not long, however, before the settlers discovered that the prairie soil was more fertile than forest soil and was, in fact, among the most productive soils in the world. In 1819 Morris was elected president of the first agricultural society in Illinois and his most notable contribution is considered to be the warnings against “skinning” (stripping) the soil of vital nutrients (a practice very prevalent in the older states) and his promotion of quality farming devices, building ditches for prairie farming and managing effective drainage of standing or stagnant waters.

Birkbeck wrote “Notes on a Journey in America from the Coast of Virginia to the Territory of Illinois” in 1817 and “Letters from Illinois” in 1818.

Eventually, Birkbeck and Flower quarrelled and went their separate ways.

Historical review notes from Wanborough say: “The town grew rapidly at first and at one time had a population of 150 as compared to 30 for Albion [founded by Flower]”.

In subsequent years Albion prospered and became the county seat of Edwards County on April 10, 1821 while Wanborough slowly faded as a population centre.

Increasingly, the immigrants arriving at both towns represented various countries of Europe and many parts of the United States.

Along with his early writing describing life in Illinois territory, Birkbeck did not lose sight of his social conscience, writing often about life and his ambitions for his newly adopted country.

He was opposed to slavery and went on to write anti-slavery essays in newspapers under the pseudonym of Jonathan Freeman. He believed in equality and freedom, fighting against the pro-slavery Illinois Senate.

In 1822 a powerful effort was made to procure an amendment to the Constitution, making Illinois a slave state.

Pro-slavery supporters “Border Ruffians”, through a series of outrageous acts, traded votes in exchange for their support on other issues and succeeded in passing a resolution recommending a convention for that purpose.

In July 1823, with considerable courage, Birkbeck wrote under his own name a very lengthy document entitled “An Appeal to the People of Illinois on the Question of Convention”. This helped to consolidate the anti-slavery forces in Illinois to ensure that it became a free state.

The passion of his writing can easily be read as a speech of substance, his arguments passionate, contentious and moral.

The letter details more than 20 pages and he argued: “Difference of colour makes no difference in the nature of oppression or in the crime of inflicting it; and that only is a free country where every man in it is protected from oppression.”

In 1822, Governor Bond was succeeded by Edward Coles, who was elected over three other candidates as an opponent to slavery.

This was now the leading issue in Illinois politics and elections were fiercely contested. The people, however, at the August election in 1824, rejected the proposition by a 2,000 majority.

In 1824 Morris was appointed to the position of Secretary of State by the Governor of Illinois.

However, after serving three months in office he was rejected by the pro-slavery state senate who refused to confirm his appointment.

A year later he was drowned while trying to ford a river on horseback at the age of 61.

Lois Goodson, local historian and vice-president of the Edwards County Historical Society, said that the English Prairie not only put the Illinois Territory on the map”, but also “gave impetus to movements toward civic improvement and development”.

“With our historic background, it’s not likely that we’ll ever forget what the English prairie did to get us started,” said Mrs Goodson.

Morris was a man from Settle, who is remembered in American journals and historical documents as a founder of a residential area, promoting and encouraging people of all classes to immigrate to the region via his letters.

He was a man who significantly impacted upon the use of agricultural sciences to improve the potential of the land, thus the stability of future incomes.

He stood out and, by his opposition to issues such as slavery, attained high office in his adopted land. He stood by his basic principals.

Margaret Fuller, the noted American writer said of him: “Illinois will yet, I hope, regard this man, who knew so well what ought to be, as one of her true patriarchs, the Abraham of a promised land” (Summer of the Lakes. 1843).